There’s a sense of disbelief when you consider that Greta Thunberg was unknown less than two years ago. Within this short space of time, she has grown a global climate movement and is now broadening her activism to include children’s rights during the pandemic.
She has been recognized and praised worldwide by heads of state and schoolchildren alike, all captivated by the simplicity of her profound message: Start taking world problems seriously, or future generations (your grandkids) will inherit the dire consequences.
“The way Greta Thunberg has been able to mobilize younger generations for the cause of climate change and her tenacious struggle to alter a status quo that persists, makes her one of the most remarkable figures of our day,” said Jorge Sampaio of the Gulbenkian Prize For Humanity, when he awarded Thunberg prize money of one million euros. The prize is awarded annually to people or organizations that stand out for their novelty, innovation, and impact in mitigating climate change. In her true style, she pledged to give all the prize money away to organizations that raise awareness around the climate crisis. She donated another award of $100,000 from the Danish development agency Human Act, to UNICEF.
Thunberg started thinking about climate change at age eight when she said she didn’t understand why adults weren’t working to mitigate its effects. Her uncompromising attitude, which is utterly unswayed by adults many times her age, has captured the imaginations of billions of people.
“If you’re going to get healthy, you have to admit you’re sick,” says Thunberg, “and that is something that our leaders cannot seem to do today.”
In April, Thunberg launched a child rights campaign with Human Act to support UNICEF’s efforts to address the pandemic and protect children from its direct and knock-on consequences. This includes food shortages, strained healthcare systems, violence, and lost education. “Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is a child-rights crisis, too,” says Thunberg. “It will affect all children, now and in the long-term, but vulnerable groups will be impacted the most.”
Through her activism, Thunberg has proven that young people are ready to take a stand and lead change in the world. Her stance has gone beyond symbolic marches and defiant speeches — she has realized that legal and constitutional reform is equally important. In September 2019, Thunberg and 15 child petitioners from 12 countries presented a landmark official complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to protest a lack of government action on the climate crisis.
Thunberg has shown that children can hold adults accountable. Thirty years ago, world leaders made a historic commitment to the world’s children by adopting the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Today, the world’s children are holding the world accountable to that very commitment. The United Nations was formed in 1945, with 51 nations pledging to maintain international peace and security after a horrific war that cost 75 million lives. Perhaps Thunberg has already seen the need for a new version of the United Nations — one led by kids — that will raise awareness and avert a disaster before it happens, not in hindsight.
At the United Nations in 2019, Thunberg stated: “The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
Can Thunberg accurately predict the future? Perhaps. But regardless of the raging debates around her, she knows where the solutions will be found. “I am telling you there is hope. I have seen it. But it doesn’t come from governments or corporations. It comes from the people.”